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Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control

Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control by J. C. Wylie. Rutgers University Press, 1967; Reprint, Naval Institute Press, 2014, 169 pp.

This reprint of US naval officer J.C. Wylie’s Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control includes an engaging introduction written by John Hattendorf followed by the text of Military Strategy itself. The book also contains a postscript written in 1987 and three excerpts that offer additional insights into Wylie’s theory.

John Hattendorf ’s introduction beautifully brings J. C. Wylie’s career to life, shifting between his operational and intellectual experiences in the Navy. Wylie began serving in the Asiatic Fleet, where he had more experience with diplomacy than many of his counterparts who spent their interwar years engaged in fleet exercises (p. xi). Regardless, at Gua­dalcanal he showed himself to be a flexible and adaptable leader who innovated with new technology in combat to help his commander make the most of their ship’s radar (p. xv). Subsequently giving him his first command of a destroyer converted into a minesweeper, the Navy removed him six months later to help it figure out how to help its officers sys­tematically sort through the overwhelming amount of information that they had to pro­cess and comprehend (p. xvi).

Wylie’s time at the Naval War College as a student in 1948 set him down the path of writing Military Strategy as—amidst the post–World War II throes of defense unifica­tion debates—the Navy struggled to justify its existence in an age of atomic weapons (p. xx). Seeking to make a powerful argument for what the Navy should do led him to the study of maritime history, particularly a broadened approach that examined the “relation­ship of maritime matters to events in other fields of human activity” (p. xxiv).

In doing so, Wylie accepted Julian Corbett’s idea that the “purpose of sea power is to project control over the land” (p. xxvi). But Wylie wanted to do more than hone in on maritime strategy; he also sought to highlight the inadequate attention given to strategic thought in general (pp. 7–13). For example, although he considered US campaigns in WWII Europe to be “brilliantly fought,” he concurrently assessed them as detrimentally having “an obscure, contradictory, and finally nonexistent strategic end” that sought peace more than control (p. 15).

Wylie believed that those who had studied strategy tended to either frame their analysis in discussions of offense or defense (pp. 17–18) or by identifying “principles of war” (pp. 18–19). His perception was that more attention needed to be devoted to “analysis by operational pattern” as well as “analysis on a conceptual or theoretical foundation” (pp. 20–21), which he broke down into four categories of maritime, continental, air, and Maoist (or revolutionary) war.

Wylie’s analysis of operational patterns also led him to organize warfare by cumula­tive and sequential strategies. Wylie’s sequential strategy consisted of a kind of linear progression of war through a “series of actions growing naturally out of, and dependent on, the one that preceded it,” including the two drives across the Pacific in World War II (pp. 22–23). By contrast, submarine warfare in that conflict exemplified cumulative strategy, where the “entire pattern is made up of a collection of lessor actions” that are “not sequentially interdependent” (p. 23). Wylie believed this concept had as much ap­plicability to air as to naval warfare (p. 25). He also thought that cumulative warfare could not be decisive in its own right; rather, its success “meant the difference between success or failure of the sequential” (p. 25). Thus, he wanted strategists to consider how to “balance our sequential and cumulative efforts toward the most effective and least costly attainment of our goals” (pp. 25–26).

Useful as these concepts were, however, he did not think that they were “adequate” for a holistic war theory (p. 27). Likewise, his conceptual theories of maritime, air, continen­tal, and revolutionary or Maoist warfare also were not holistic, but he found them im­perative for each service to better understand the others’ way of thinking (p. 29) and to determine “when and where and under what circumstances” each could be employed most effectively (p. 48).

Interestingly, Wylie believed that Mao’s theory had been better tested than airpower theory (p. 53). Regarding airpower, moreover, theorists tended to assume that the “con­trol of a people can in fact be exercised by imposition (or threat of imposition) of some kind of physical destruction . . . that . . . can be imposed from the air” (p. 63). Liddell Hart came closest to a general theory with his indirect approach, Wylie observed, but this concept was too “nebulous” and more or less just overlaid an indirect approach on top of continental theory (pp. 59–60).

Writing during the Vietnam War, he also wondered if and how a continental or Clausewitzian theory based on sequence could defeat a Maoist cumulative strategy or if the US must develop its own cumulative strategy (p. 54). Regardless, none of these largely domain-based theories offered a general and all-encompassing theory of war, not even Clausewitz (pp. 56–57).

Ultimately, Wylie wanted to determine “what kind of control is desired” in order to appreciate “under what circumstances will destruction or the threat of destruction bring about the desired means of control” (p. 41). Such control could be “direct, indirect, subtle, passive, partial or complete,” and it also need not be military (p. 89). Thus, Wylie briefly advocated for crafting a compelling philosophy to “be ‘for’ ” (p. 90), although he did not expand on this idea at length. But it fit into his insistence that—because “military matters are inextricably woven into the whole social power fabric”—a general strategy must ac­count for “power in all its forms” (p. 93).

Despite being a naval officer, Wylie also believed that one of the key “basic assump­tions for strategic planning” was that the “ultimate determinant in war is the man on the scene with the gun” (p. 72). To begin thinking about establishing control required one to determine the enemy’s center of gravity or “national jugular vein” (p. 77), which then could be exploited by taking charge of the “pattern of war” by deftly “manipulat[ing] . . . the center of gravity of war.”

A strategist must manage the “nature and the placement and the timing and the weight of the centers” toward one’s desired ends (p. 78). General Sherman, for example, “manipulated the center of weight of the war as he marched” into the south, thereby seiz­ing control of the war’s pattern (p. 79). In World War I, the Allies attempted to act similarly at Gallipoli, although they failed (p. 80). On the flip side, one must also seek to make one’s opponent’s “theory invalid” in the planning process to keep the enemy from seizing control of a war’s pattern (p. 86).

Wylie’s Military Strategy offers a comprehensive and coherent look at military strategy that helps enable multi-domain operations by letting each service understand the other’s worldview and then brings those perspectives together in seizing the initiative. Every SSQ reader should peruse this short tome on strategy.

Dr. Heather Venable
Associate Professor, Air Command and Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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